The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

UNC in turmoil over Silent Sam, the Confederate monument toppled by protesters

This semester more than any other, the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus has been riven over a statue some see as a hateful symbol of racism and others defend as a historical monument.

Faculty have formally opposed plans to return the divisive Confederate monument to the Chapel Hill campus. More than 1,000 scholars have urged administrators not to punish teaching assistants threatening to withhold final grades in protest. More than 2,000 alumni vowed not to donate money until the monument, known as “Silent Sam,” is gone for good. And two students are walking around campus with nooses hanging from their necks.

On Friday, the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors — a panel that oversees public universities in the state — meets and could determine the statue’s fate. Early Friday morning activists were sharing photos on social media of a demonstration outside the meeting.

Erected more than 100 years ago to honor students who fought in the Civil War, the bronze figure of a young soldier has been the subject of debate for years. But fights over monuments elsewhere in the country turned the statue into even more of a flash point in Chapel Hill, much as a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee became the locus of violent protests in Charlottesville last year. When protesters pulled Silent Sam down in August, they forced school officials to take a stand.

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The Board of Governors had called the statue’s removal unlawful and ordered the school’s leaders to come up with a plan for Silent Sam’s preservation.

Last week, the university’s Board of Trustees approved a plan to return the statue to UNC, no longer in its prominent spot at an entrance, but in a $5.3 million building to be erected elsewhere on campus with an ongoing cost estimated at $800,000 a year.

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Their vote drove hundreds of protesters to the streets of Chapel Hill. It set off a flurry of letters and resolutions — from student groups, faculty and more than 150 current and former UNC athletes — opposing a plan that included adding context to historical sites on campus but that many saw as an expensive shrine to white supremacy.

“It’s just — unfathomable,” said Jerry Wilson, a graduate student, that the school would commit to spending $800,000 a year maintaining a home for a racist symbol even as it cites financial concerns in limiting student opportunities. “How can you in good conscience do that, knowing the impact it has on black members of the Carolina community?” He and another student had won a grant to help attract students of color to UNC, and the proposal undercut their efforts over the past year, he said, and made clear to him how little the school values black students like himself.

“It really did hurt,” he said. “I don’t have the words to explain how much it hurt.”

He and his friend hung nooses around their necks this week.

The proposal also angered some who say the statue must be returned to its pedestal, including some members of groups honoring the Confederacy.

A member of the Board of Governors derided the board for what he saw as cowardice and called the proposal illegal. Thom Goolsby responded to messages seeking comment by referring to a video he posted on social media last week.

Some on campus support the plan approved by trustees. Chancellor Carol Folt had emphasized that the administration would prefer to move the monument off campus but could not do so under state law, which restricts what can be done with historical monuments. And some are resigned to the idea, feeling it is a workable solution given the restrictions.

“There are a lot of people that are hoping that the Board of Governors will grant what the administration has asked for,” said Harry L. Watson, a history professor at the university who specializes in Southern culture.

But others called on the administration to defy the state law, which they say is unjust.

At first, Watson thought the trustees' plan was perhaps the best the administration could do given all the pressures, even though he was shocked by the cost. After about a decade of budget cuts, Watson said, he suspects the chancellor must be worried that if she doesn’t accommodate the will of the Board of Governors and the General Assembly, then they could do irreparable harm to the university in retaliation.

But in the days since, and after hearing a university lawyer explain all the things UNC could not legally do, “I found myself thinking, ‘We’ve got to break out of these legalisms.’ What the community needs is some kind of moral leadership … where we can hear from the very top, from the chancellor, from the trustees, the leading administrators speaking in one voice, absolutely denouncing white supremacy and racism.”

Hampton Dellinger, a former North Carolina deputy attorney general, said a clear path exists that is legal and ethical and in the university’s best interests: permanently remove the statue from campus. The administration keeps citing the state law, he said, but federal law is clear: Institutions that receive federal funds and institutions of higher education cannot tolerate or promote a racially hostile environment on campus. “That was established more than 50 years ago in the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Dellinger said.

“UNC has decided to stand on the wrong side of history,” he said, “and, I believe, on the wrong side of the law.”

At a faculty meeting last week, students interrupted, confronting Folt and reading from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail, with its scathing critique of “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

Some teaching assistants and others threatened to leverage their control over final grades to force the university’s leaders to agree Silent Sam will not be returned to campus.

A university spokeswoman said Thursday administrators have not seen evidence of grades being withheld. The school was closed Sunday until midday Tuesday because of a snowstorm, and some final exams were postponed.

Robert A. Blouin, executive vice chancellor and provost, warned deans last week that withholding grades would violate the teaching assistants' instructional responsibilities and result in serious consequences for employees who chose to do so.

Students are entitled to receive their grades without delay, he wrote. “It is especially critical for the students preparing to graduate next Sunday, as well as the thousands of students whose scholarships, grants, loans, visa status, school transfers, job opportunities and military commissions may be imperiled because lack of grades threaten their eligibility,” Blouin wrote. The proposed strike exposes the University and individuals who withhold grades to legal claims for the harm they cause to students.”

Many faculty members had concerns that the action would have unintended consequences for students, but many also strongly felt they must support the teaching assistants' right to take action on the issue. A letter originating with UNC faculty that spread widely and gained more than 1,000 supporters sought to defend the teaching assistants and condemned any retaliation that might be taken.

“Universities must remain places committed to protecting and fostering students,” they wrote, “not to suppressing their right to speak freely and to dissent.”

The administration sees the threat of a strike as a breach of contract, one professor said, while the graduate students see it as a peaceful protest.

In a letter to parents, graduate students and others explained why they had threatened to strike. “Silent Sam has served to reinforce white supremacy on our campus since the moment … Julian Carr bragged that he ‘horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds’ at the statue’s dedication ceremony,” they wrote.

Many student groups, including student government leaders, said they plan to demonstrate at Friday’s meeting of the Board of Governors.

Supporters of the statue plan to gather this weekend at the pedestal where it used to stand.